Thursday, July 30, 2009

To Preach or Tell the Truth?

Recently a Colorado TV station, KBDI, aired a wonderful program titled "Polis Is This"--a biography, in essence, of poet Charles Olson. If you are already familiar with his work, this film takes you back and features a host of his compatriots from Black Mountain College, some of whom I have met or heard read, so I was nostalgic about that aspect, as well as the clips of his home town in Massachusetts, the fishing town of Gloucester. As a fellow New Englander, I get his drive to explore the history and nuances of that place. Place--the great challenge for many of the poets whose work I turn to for guidance and example. How to get at the heart of one's experience with place, when I come from a family of vagabonds and immigrants? Our attachments to place are brief and, at times, mythic. We create a memory and grip it like a life preserver when we feel lost and alone. "If only I could have stayed in Happyville, where everybody knew my name." No wonder Cheers was so popular. Even the idea of having a regular pub appeals when, in fact, we have little to call our "local" and every place looks like a chain-store franchise.

What Olson felt and espoused was the particularity of his community, its mythic connections, its impact on his unique life, and his effect on that place. Olson was a big man, physically and emotionally and intellectually. He knew poetry in a deep and useful way. It filled his head and his days. He has a reputation for having taught classes (he probably would not have accepted such a regimented label as this) that lasted for hours when the discussion was vital and the people engaged. One time he went on for 24 hours, talking, talking, listening, listening. Makes the fifty-minute hour seem like chump change, doesn't it? What I came away with was a thirst for his poetry--very different from what is heard today--and a determination to serve this muse with more devotion. I don't want to preach, though I see that tendency in myself. I want to offer to anyone who can use it the truth of my unique experience in whatever place I find myself. Let them make use of it as they wish. That's the best that I can do, knowing the limitations of language and selection, the need to replace nostalgia for a burned out farm in Maine with insight into the Front Range and suburbia where I now live. To be a poet, really, is not fun, or not only fun. It's a responsibility to "notice what you notice," as Ginsberg says, and to report back with all possible honesty.

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